On Steve Ferrone
Amongst today's drummers, I think that Steve Ferrone is an underappreciated player. He’s been on more hits and grooves that you know than you’d realize. To me, he’s one of those great musicians that really bridges rock and soul music. Put simply, he’s a guy that can rock, but really makes it feel great. The reason I'm writing about him today is because I was recently riding in the car with the lady and the kids, listening to Tom Petty’s album “Wildflowers” and just couldn’t get enough of Ferrone’s grooves. I realized I’d never really dug into his playing, and had missed a shining gem of a drummer for all these years.
Soul music is really where Ferrone’s works began getting recorded. After several records with the Average White Band, he was Chaka Khan’s backbone for many years and more than just a handful of albums. Both groups were very funky, and Chaka Khan is a truly killer soul singer. Though most of her stuff is that heavy stylized 80’s sound, I first fell in love with her when I heard the old school tune “Sweet Thing”, which was Rufus feat. Chaka Khan (Ferrone is not on that track, but you should dig it anyway). When she split from Rufus to do her own thing, Ferrone was there from the beginning, laying it down.
In addition to Tom Petty, Ferrone has played with rock songwriters such as Eric Clapton, George Harrison, and Christine McVie (Fleetwood Mac). These are really some of the greatest names in rock songwriting, and emphasizes what a worthwhile listen Ferrone’s drumming is.
So when you take a general cross-section of Ferrone’s musical works, you see that he’s a guy that really knows how to bridge the gap between several styles of music, and can really play at the top of his class. This is what I heard when I was listening to Wildflowers. The beauty of the drumming on that album really lies in its simplicity. Most of the grooves are beats that beginners could understand and learn, but it takes a real master to play them with the style that Ferrone brings to the table.
One of my favorite tracks on the Wildflowers is the tune “You Wreck Me”. It’s a real upbeat and straightforward tune, and there’s no enigma to the rock’n’roll happening there. The drums drive straight down the middle of the song like a fastball pitch. What I felt when I dug into this beat is that it’s machined like the engine of a top notch muscle car. There isn’t a single hesitation, question mark, or fluffed stroke through the whole track. It’s sheer precision. Every stroke is deliberate and in the pocket. But it’s not sterile, like a drum machine. To be a machine like Ferrone is on the track is not to sound like a machine. You can play with flawless execution, but the feeling and human soul that pumps life into the song is what makes it great! It’s fun, it’s confident, it’s in the pocket, and there’s really nothing more you can do to deliver a better beat for a straight-forward tune. Every drummer on earth could play that beat, but few could deliver it the way Ferrone does. That’s what makes it such a great groove to listen to. I really recommend listening to that exact same beat played by different drummers on different songs- it is amazing to hear how differently it comes across with different feels. It’s a subtlety of major importance to our art.
The big hit track off the album “You Don’t Know How It Feels” is similar, in that the beauty is in the simplicity (really, the whole album has that approach to it. Tom Petty isn’t exactly a flashy guy, and that’s one of the reasons I love his songs). One of my favorite things about the groove is how well Ferrone masks the sixteenth note on the hi-hat. You really feel it, but you hardly hear it. It’s a great subtlety that he lets pop out a little bit in the bridge/solo section (listen for those little open hat emphasises). Another great detail is how crash cymbals are mostly absent from the song in places that drummers almost always drop them. There is very little percussive punctuation to the song, so while Petty is talking about rolling things, the beat makes the whole song feel like it’s rolling right along because of that nuance.
As I’ve gotten older, listened to and played more music, these subtleties are the things I’ve come to cherish the most in music. I am still awed by great technical feats, inventive and unique approaches to playing, and all the cool flashy things that drummers can do. But to me it is truly the mark of a professional to sit behind a great songwriter and make them sound like they are a legend. I think that Ferrone’s drumming was the backdrop for Petty’s greatness on this album, and that is first and foremost what makes him a great drummer, in my humble opinion.
“Pick Up the Pieces” - Average White Band “AWB” (1974)
“Love Has Fallen On Me” - Chaka Khan “Chaka” (1978)
“Notorious” - Duran Duran “Notorious” (1986)
“Pretending” - Eric Clapton “Journeyman” (1989)
“You Don’t Know How It Feels” - Tom Petty “Wildflowers” (1994)
“Give Me One Reason” - Tracy Chapman “New Beginning” (1995)